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Did Slaves Really Use Quilt Codes on the Underground Railroad?

The tale of quilt codes on the Underground Railroad weaves a narrative of secret symbols guiding slaves to freedom. While historians debate its authenticity, the power of these stories lies in their testament to resilience and ingenuity. How much truth is stitched into these patterns? Uncover the threads of history as we explore the mystery behind the quilt codes.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

In 2007, an image on the pedestal of a statue of the famous black statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass triggered a controversy over the historical accuracy of the event it depicted. The image of a slave quilt was intended to honor the bravery of "conductors" along the Underground Railroad, a grassroots effort to help Southern slaves escape to the northern free states or Canada. Over the years, a type of noble mythology surrounding the Underground Railroad has arisen along with the historical facts. One possibly apocryphal story involves the use of quilt codes, secret symbols said to be sewn into quilts and displayed outside sympathetic homes as signals for escaping slaves.

The story of the quilt codes is believed to have been revealed through interviews with former slaves or their descendants during the 1930s. According to these accounts, either slaves employed as housekeepers or sympathetic white abolitionists would sew different quilt codes into their quilts and hang them outside, ostensibly to air them out. Slave owners might not have noticed the significance of the designs, but slaves planning an escape through the Underground Railroad were said to know the quilt codes by heart. Many of the designs were brought over from Africa, so even the least educated slave could decipher the meaning of the quilt codes with little confusion.

Slaves probably did not base escape routes on 17 different quilts and hidden messages.
Slaves probably did not base escape routes on 17 different quilts and hidden messages.

Allegedly, certain quilt codes would be displayed in a specific order to allow slaves enough time to prepare for escape. The first quilt codes, called the "Monkey Wrench," would tell slaves it was time to gather up their tools necessary for survival. The second of these quilt codes would be a "Wagon Wheel," which told the slaves to pack up their supplies as if packing for a wagon trip. From that point on, the quilt codes were often changed to provide specific information escaping slaves would need to know along the way. A design called "Bear's Paw," for example, was supposedly a reminder to follow the same trail a bear would in order to find food and water in the mountains.

Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.
Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.

Other quilt codes, such as "Bow ties" or "Britches" would tell escaped slaves to dress more formally or to don a disguise. A jagged design called "The Drunkard's Path" suggested that a slave should move in unpredictable directions to throw off local bounty hunters. If an escaped slave needed to find a safe house for food or shelter, certain quilt codes such as "Log Cabin" or "Shoo-fly" were said to designate sympathetic members of the Underground Railroad or free blacks who were familiar with the system. Other quilt codes would remind escaped slaves which direction to follow, as in the case of "Flying Geese" or "Stars."

While the story of the quilt codes appears to fit with the known historical facts of the Underground Railroad, there are some inherent problems. Some of the quilting patterns assigned to the quilt codes were not invented until after the years of the Civil War, most specifically "Bow Ties," which doesn't appear in quilting journals until the 1950s. Other quilting patterns such as "Flying Geese" or "Monkey Wrench" do not appear to be particularly useful as shorthand, since migrating geese rarely fly at night and the tool known as a monkey wrench was not invented until the 1850s. While it's very plausible that sympathetic "conductors" on the Underground Railroad may have hung out quilts or other banners as secret symbols, it would be impractical to have 17 different quilts containing all of the alleged quilt codes in one home.

The tradition of the quilt codes is believed to be based largely on the recollections of a slave's daughter, who recounted the story to a children's book author. The story of quilt codes was further popularized through the efforts of influential black television show host Oprah Winfrey and others looking for stories, real or apocryphal, surrounding the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. The story of the quilt codes does provide a satisfying sidebar to a very important historical and social event, even if the details prove to be more apocryphal than historically accurate.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the quilt code theory related to the Underground Railroad?

The quilt code theory suggests that enslaved African Americans used a system of patterns sewn into quilts to communicate messages and guide those fleeing slavery on the Underground Railroad. According to this theory, each pattern had a specific meaning, providing directions or warnings. However, historians and scholars have debated the veracity of this theory, with many considering it a myth due to the lack of contemporary evidence and documentation.

Is there historical evidence supporting the use of quilt codes by escaping slaves?

There is no concrete historical evidence or documentation from the period of the Underground Railroad that confirms the use of quilt codes by escaping slaves. The quilt code narrative emerged in the late 20th century, and most historians argue that it lacks credible primary source support. According to historian Giles R. Wright, there is no written testimony or diaries from abolitionists or escaping slaves that mention the use of quilts as a communication tool.

How did the quilt code theory become popular?

The quilt code theory became popularized by the book "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad," published in 1999 by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. The authors presented the story of a quilt code passed down through generations, which captured the public's imagination. Despite its popularity, the book has been criticized for its lack of rigorous historical evidence and reliance on anecdotal accounts.

What are some of the supposed meanings of quilt patterns according to the code theory?

According to the quilt code theory, different quilt patterns supposedly had specific meanings. For example, the "Monkey Wrench" pattern was said to signal the need to gather tools for the journey, while the "Bear's Paw" indicated a path through the mountains. The "Log Cabin" pattern was thought to represent a safe house. However, these interpretations are not supported by historical records from the time of the Underground Railroad.

What do historians say about the teaching of quilt codes in relation to the Underground Railroad?

Many historians caution against teaching the quilt code theory as a factual part of Underground Railroad history. They emphasize the importance of relying on well-documented historical evidence and worry that the quilt code narrative distracts from the real and documented acts of bravery and ingenuity by those involved in the Underground Railroad. Historians advocate for focusing on the authentic stories and experiences that are supported by historical records.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular HistoricalIndex contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular HistoricalIndex contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Talentryto

Though the quilt codes of the times of the Underground Railroad may not be exactly as described by some ancestors of slavery, the concept of using these quilts to notify runaway slaves probably is factual. Many signs and codes that were unnoticeable to most people were used during slavery to help those who were seeking freedom. I'm sure there are many that have never even been recorded in history.

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    • Slaves probably did not base escape routes on 17 different quilts and hidden messages.
      By: iMAGINE
      Slaves probably did not base escape routes on 17 different quilts and hidden messages.
    • Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.
      By: rook76
      Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.